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"Safe enough to eat"? DDT and visions of global health after World War Two


Between the end of the Second World War in 1945 and the beginning of the 1960s, the idea of 'global health' came to be one of the key ways in which powerful, global institutions expressed their visions for how the world should be run. Drugs, poisons and other therapies came to be the materials through which humanity was to be made less prone to its oldest foes: death, disease and hunger. Of these materials, one in particular was spoken about as a particularly wondrous substance for eradicating the insects that caused terrible diseases like malaria and typhus: DDT. Between the war and 1962, DDT was viewed as a drug that embodied the greatest promises of science to improve the world, but then an American writer named Rachel Carson published a book, Silent Spring, which argued that DDT was in fact dangerously toxic to humans and animals alike when ingested in large enough quantities. The story of Carson's book has since become stock for understanding DDT's social, economic and environmental history, but this episode of Body Politics, plots a less well-known version of that history, by following the drug's deployment in British colonies across the African continent. Through a fascinating conversation with Dr Sabine Clark of the University of York, it raises pointed questions about the politics of International Development in the post-war world, and for whose benefit that development was being orchestrated. 

Wellcome Collection, "DDT So safe you can eat it" (1947), [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gtcXXbuR244]

Army Pictorial Service, "Film Bulletin No. 195" (1947), [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtqWZ2JsOsc]

 All images used come courtesy of  Wellcome Collection under the provisions of a Creative Commons (CC 4.0) usage licence

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   The Show

Body Politics is the podcast where the history of medicine and society collides, and was founded by Kieran Fitzpatrick, a historian of medicine, in late-2020.

How have previous human societies responded to infectious diseases? How does medicine change over time, pushed to do so by changes in economics, culture, politics and ecology? In what ways are medicine and healthcare an expression of what humans value in themselves and others, and what they do not?

These are the sorts of questions that structure the show's conversations, providing you with the mental space to reflect on fundamental aspects of human history.